Regional Parties and the 2014 General Elections
A majority of opinion polls have predicted a hung parliament – where no single political party gets a ruling majority in the 543-seat Lower House of Parliament – in this summer’s general elections in India. If such a prediction come true, the regional parties will play an even larger role in the formation of the next government.
On February 6, leaders of eleven non-Congress and non-BJP political parties announced that they would begin to work together as a bloc in parliament advancing a common agenda. This marked the first real step toward the formation of a unified Third Front as an alternative to the Congress and BJP-led coalitions. The bloc consists of four leftist parties and seven regional parties including the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – the party that rules the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu; the Samajwadi party – the ruling party in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh; the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Odisha; and the Janata Dal (United) of Bihar.
Other key regional players to watch out for ahead of the coming electoral battle include the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal; the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – one of the six national parties but largely holding sway in Uttar Pradesh; the YSR Congress Party of Andhra Pradesh; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Maharashtra; and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) also of Bihar.
The seven states mentioned above account for 312 out of the total 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower house). Uttar Pradesh sends the highest number (80 members), followed by Maharashtra (48), Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal (42 each), Bihar (40), Tamil Nadu (39) and Odisha (21). The key to forming the next government, lies with these states.
Three of these political parties are led by women who are often seen as mavericks. J Jayalalithaa heads the AIADMK and is the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee is the president of Trinamool Congress and the chief minister of West Bengal and Mayawati, a powerful Dalit leader who heads the BSP, and is a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. All of them have made it clear that they will not tie-up with any national party (read Congress or BJP) before the polls. All three also nurture ambitions of being PM one day. So do the chiefs of the Samajwadi Party (Mulayam Singh Yadav), NCP (Sharad Pawar) and the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar.
Pollsters have predicted that Jayalalithaa's AIADMK could be the third largest party after the Congress and the BJP in the coming elections and are including her in the list of aspiring Prime Ministers. The “Jaya for PM” chorus is growing louder as elections approach. “From Fort St George (the legislative headquarters of Tamil Nadu) to Red Fort in Delhi” is the AIADMK campaign slogan. The “First Tamil PM” billboards have gone up across Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Political observers suggest that this is not mere grandstanding, posturing, or wishful thinking but rather a calculated move by Jayalalithaa.
Though the popularity of the AIADMK chief has marginally declined since 2011, when her party swept the assembly polls, infighting within its rival party – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – will likely help her party’s prospects. Added to this are doubts within the Congress about whether senior leaders, including Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, will seek re-election from the state in the absence of a strong alliance.
In Uttar Pradesh, politically and electorally the most crucial state of India, the BJP move to name Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate has certainly given it an edge over others. Modi has put his close aide, Amit Shah, in charge of the party's campaign in the state amid an increasingly polarized political debate.
The ruling Samajwadi Party has endured heavy criticism over the deteriorating law and order situation in the state, especially given heightened communal tensions since the party’s leader Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son Akhilesh Yadav took over as the chief minister in March 2012. As a result, the main contest has been narrowed to BJP versus BSP. Some political observers have tied the BJP’s improved electoral outlook in UP to reports that it is trying to revive religious issues for electoral gains.
The BJP won 47 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh in 1991, 50 in 1996, and its highest of 57 in 1998. However, it failed to maintain this momentum and managed to win just 29 seats in 1999. The downslide continued in 2004 when it won just 10 seats and barely managed to retain those in 2009. The Congress made considerable gains in 2009 when it won 21 seats in the state.
For her part, the BSP’s Mayawati is weighing her options and keeping her cards close to her chest. Having decided to go it alone in the polls, she is likely to make her move only after the elections, seeing which way the wind blows.
In Bihar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad is keen to put up a secular front to counter the rise of the BJP under Modi’s leadership and has been knocking at Congress doors for a tie-up. The Congress has realized that there is a crystallization of the RJD’s support base and a surge in Prasad’s popularity after his conviction. This is in sharp contrast to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar whose popularity has declined after his party snapped 17-year-old ties with the BJP last year in response to Modi’s anointment as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s prime ministerial candidate. Political observers are of the opinion that an alliance between the RJD, Congress, and the Lok Janshakti Party (another regional party) would be a formidable one that could repeat or outdo its 2004 performance, when it won 32 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats.
Mamata Banerjee created history in the 2011 elections in West Bengal when she single handedly defeated the CPM and brought an end to 34 years of uninterrupted Left rule in the state. Though some claim that she has since lost an incredible amount of goodwill and disillusionment has already set in, the back-to-back massive victories of her party in the recent village and municipal elections present a contrary picture. Political analysts are of the view that she has the ability to regain the lost ground and that people haven’t forgotten CPM rule yet. Pollsters have predicted a marked improvement in the Trinamool Congress’s tally of 19 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 elections. In the coming days, Banerjee’s role in power politics would be crucial, though she has repeatedly dismissed suggestions of either supporting the Congress or the BJP in the next government formation. She has – in the past – been a part of both the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Another party to watch out for is the BJD of Odisha. Its president and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has often spoken of being a part of the proposed Third Front. He has maintained that the corruption of the Congress and communal politics of the BJP have weakened the country. BJD leaders have gone on record stating that since both the BJP and the Congress would not be able to secure a majority in the 2014 elections, their party, together with other regional parties, will play a major role at the national level. Patnaik has stressed that winning more Lok Sabha seats would help the BJD become a stronger player in New Delhi and able to fight for the interest of the state.
All these regional leaders have declared that the time has come for a Third Front of non-Congress and non-BJP parties to emerge. With the Congress headed for what might turn out to be its worst-ever performance – as things stand –struggling to cross the 100 mark; and the BJP falling well short of the magic figure of 272, these regional leaders smell a chance this time around.
The views expressed by the author are personal.